The new world armies..G4S is 4 times the size of the UK army
The recent discussions around the G4S Olympic security scandal highlighted two jaw-dropping facts, writes historian Michael Wood.
The first was that Britain still has the fourth largest military budget in the world, behind the USA, China and Russia.
In these days of gloomy introspection about the decline of the UK’s military might, it was to say the least, a surprise.
But the second was no less amazing – that the personnel of G4S, a private British security company, is four times larger than the British Army.
Chief executive Nick Buckles has outlined a potential loss of at least £30m on its £284m contract for the Olympics but it soon became apparent that this was a drop in the ocean. The company’s revenue in 2011 was about £7.5bn – and is rising.
G4S has a primary listing on London Stock Exchange, a former home secretary as “group consultant”, and operations in over 125 countries – not bad for a security firm founded in 2004 and based in Crawley.
This is a company whose previously accident-prone record – as Group 4 Securicor – in running prisons and providing military security, had been criticised in parliament and provoked global protests about its employment practices.
And now the cash-strapped and resource-starved British Army has had to provide thousands of troops for the Olympics to fill the gap left by the failures of a private army.
It all set me thinking about history. Where had I heard such stories before? The private army of the Honourable East India Company, that’s where.
The mother of all global multinationals, the story of the East India Company uncannily echoes that of modern giants, who trade in natural resources, make their profits and gain new spheres of influence through economic intervention.
Founded in 1600 to exploit the trade with India, the company’s shareholders were wealthy merchants and aristocrats and the keys to its success were both commercial and military.
The shareholders of the East India Company were making huge profits from their commercial operations in India, operations that were secured and guarded by private armies working for the company and paid for by Indian taxpayers.
And when things went horribly wrong it was the Indian and British taxpayers who suffered and the British government and British armed forces that had to step in to sort out the disaster.
In the 17th Century India was not a single entity – it was divided between many different states. It was beset by internal divisions and Mughal power in the north was collapsing, which made it easier for the company to divide and rule.
As always in history, where there is a vacuum the go-getters and money makers move in to fill it.
your watching it play out..G4S is like blackwater for me..private armies running, promoting and dictating government laws..
the new East India Company indeed..